I wrote a book
I’ve published a book!
It’s called Wyclif’s Dust: Western Cultures from the Printing Press to the Present. You can get it here on Amazon. If you’re reading this newsletter, it’ll probably interest you. For instance, it delves into the topics I wrote about here and here, with more backup.
I got the spark to write this just after my Mum died. An old friend phoned up. He had fallen on hard times and was living above a pizza parlour in Luton. (For readers outside the UK, living anywhere in Luton is basically hard times.) We started talking about politics and he asked me incredulously why I was a conservative. I thought for a second. “I hate it when people drop litter,” I said. There was a silence on the other end of the line, and I think we both got the sense that this was not a completely adequate answer.
So, though the book isn’t really about conservatism, it started as an attempt to give a better answer. I would say the connection with litter is that it’s the classic small-scale public good that the state cannot provide. We’d all like to live on clean streets, but, people usually think, hiring policemen to arrest litterbugs is an impracticable way to achieve that. (Maybe Singapore is a counter-example?) The book is about the historical link between those small-scale problems and the big problems, like how to control people in power (and so in some sense, how we got things called states at all).
In the process of answering, I wrote a very broad and sweeping book, which covers 500 years of history from a bunch of different angles, from 16th century religious movements to Victorian social order to the fiction of Thomas Mann to 21st century social science. So I have ranged far beyond “my field”, and of course that risks making lots of mistakes. I think it was worthwhile: sometimes to get a really new perspective, you have to step back and rethink many things at once. But others will have to judge.
At the broadest level, here is some of what this book is about.
It’s a history of “the West”, meaning the Christian societies of Europe and America which first went through the take off into modern economic growth; and it’s an attempt to rethink what progress is, that is, what other things are underneath the GDP growth that economists and politicians obsess about? So you can think of it as a contribution to progress studies. In particular it’s against the idea that “nothing important happened before 1800” — meaning nothing important to human welfare, that is, almost everyone on earth was living at an unchanged subsistence level up to that point. This argument is often supported by Angus Maddison’s GDP data. But it is too partial! There are other things that matter beyond GDP, even to ordinary people, and even before the Industrial Revolution and the exit from the Malthusian trap.
To understand this history, you have to think of humans as “cultural learners” and not as homo economicus.
This change really has two parts, best summed up in a table from chapter one:
Homo economicus always makes sensible choices. But homo culturalis only makes sensible choices if he’s brought up the right way: the level of individual rationality is culturally determined. On the other hand, homo economicus is always self-interested, but again for homo culturalis, it depends what he learns, which means that the level of social cooperation is culturally determined too. And these two things — individual rationality and collective cooperation — are part of the infrastructure for economic growth and other kinds of progress.
If so, then we need to understand the central role of communications technology in changing how culture and social norms are transmitted. This is related to my “Technology of Cultural Transmission” paper with Mich Tvede. So, the book focuses a lot on text and the printing press, and about religion, and then it focuses on mass media and mass culture, and then on the new era of social media.
In particular, it tries to get beyond the “institutionalism” of contemporary economic thought. A twenty-first century perspective can be historically misleading. We live in a very organized world. Meetings are scheduled. Institutions have written rules. Everything has a specification. Continent-sized firms can be coordinated by email and phone. But go back a couple of centuries and this gets much harder! There’s less role for organization and more role for individuals, and that means more is demanded of individuals. My favourite example is credit. Two centuries ago, credit is a moral concept, it’s about whether your society views you as a trustworthy person. Today, for the same thing, we have specialized tech: credit cards and computerized credit scores.
Last of all, the book puts contemporary issues against a deeper background. Today’s political and social problems did not start with Facebook: they have roots in the post-war period, in the revolution which replaces the world of the book with the world of mass media, in the period of chaos that accompanied that transition — what Francis Fukuyama called the Great Disruption — in the incomplete and partial ways we exited that disruption around the turn of the millennium, in the ways liberalism developed around that time: economically towards neoliberalism, and socially towards progressivism. All of this is the backdrop to a new period, which is really most like the early 16th century: a combination of breakneck social change and ferocious ideological conflict, driven by a new communications technology which is reordering the world. So, the ultimate hook is: this is a super-wide-angle guide to what’s happening today.
That is all quite serious and dense, but I hope the book is also fun. As the cover blurb mentions, you’ll learn which U2 song Bono described as “just a load of vowel sounds ganging up on a great man”; what the Ancient Egyptian Onomasticon of Amenope taught its readers; just how drunk people were in 17th-century Shropshire; how Charles James Fox dived into a bowl of cream; why Baron von Haynau was chased down a London high street by draymen; how many seconds it should take you, according to the Systems and Procedures Association of America, to open a file drawer; the unprintable things the Wolf Man wanted to do to Sigmund Freud; why modern Norwegians “don’t like to get fish goo in their hair”; and what happened to the unused confetti from Hilary Clinton’s election night in 2016.
It also has a cover designed by me, which I hope looks appropriately samizdat:
Razib Khan said that the Wyclif’s Dust name made him think of an 80-year-old Oxford professor with a fascination for medieval theology. Fair enough…. It actually comes from an anonymous poem allegedly written after John Wyclif’s bones were dug up and burnt by the church:
The Avon to the Severn runs,
The Severn to the sea;
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,
Wide as the waters be.
Let me tell you something personal. I mentioned my mother died in 2014. She was a pretty interesting person. In some ways she was kind of from the past; she was born in 1935 — in a world before plastic and in a village where men still went out to cut the hay — and brought up in the 40s and 50s, and at some point she just decided not to take on board any of the ideas around her, from the 1960s and onwards. And as she brought me up that way, I am partly from that world myself. So this book is a reckoning with that. It’s a confrontation between the world of the catechism, first edition 1548, learned by heart for four centuries thereafter:
My duty towards my neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do all men as I would they should do unto me: to love, honour, and succour my father and mother: to honour and obey the King and all that are put in authority under him: to submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: to order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: to hurt nobody by word nor deed: to be true and just in all my dealings: to bear no malice nor hatred in my heart:…
and the world of today where we have mindfulness lessons in schools, and then run massive randomized controlled trials to see whether they make kids more mindful:
It’s easy and tempting to be nostalgic about the past. I think especially so to a modern person, because we grow up in a family — a little world with its own rules of cooperation and fairness — and then we grow up and go out into the real world, with its rules like No Free Lunch and It’s Who You Know, and we look back and mistake our childhood for the Good Old Days. (I’ve even heard people wax for the simpler values of the 1980s. Seriously? The decade of American Psycho?) But if you read enough history you learn soon that there was no ideal past. And more, there was no static past — no “traditional society” — just an unceasing flux, and people born into it and carried forward on its dancing current. Everything my book writes about was once radical and modern, and is radical and modern compared to the real traditional humans (illiterate hunter-gatherers), and even that family people look back on is a radical, modern invention, see Chapter 4.
So, I hope the book looks forward as well as backward, and does justice to both worlds.